Hot topic: Should we pay an air travel carbon tax?

As part of a government initiative to reduce carbon emissions and tackle climate change, air travellers may soon have to pay an extra tax. But will this work?

By Simon Usborne
Published 11 Sept 2019, 15:33 BST
In flight.
In flight.
Photograph by Getty Images

What is carbon offsetting?

For well over a decade, individuals and companies have been able to balance the effects of their emissions on the environment by investing in, say, renewable energies or tree-planting projects.

For an airline passenger, this might mean offsetting the carbon emissions from one ticket on a London to Los Angeles flight by donating €133 to climate-protection projects via German nonprofit Atmosfair, which has a carbon footprint calculator.

What began as a system with largely unregulated schemes has become more sophisticated as awareness of the climate crisis has grown along with travel’s part in it (transport overall accounted for a third of UK carbon emissions in 2018). Offsetting is now part of a global energy market.

Does it work?

Up to a point. Schemes remain voluntary and popular awareness is fairly low. The International Air Transport Association says just 1% of airline passengers voluntarily offset their emissions. Book a flight online with Virgin Atlantic, for example, and there’s no mention of offsetting. Search separately and you can offset your flight with ClimateCare, a UK-based environmental company that works with the airline (a relative bargain of just £5.70 will cover a one-way London to New York flight, it calculates). However, critics are adamant that offsetting misses the point and simply allows individuals, not to mention giant corporate emitters, to carry on as usual rather than facing up to and, crucially, investing in real change.

What’s the new proposal?

The ‘call for evidence’ report published by the Department for Transport last July explored different ways to better engage with passengers on the impact of travel — with a focus on carbon offsetting. One idea is to compel ticket sellers, including airlines, to include the option to offset carbon during the booking process by checking a box. Ministers are clear that any scheme should remain voluntary, but also suggest an opt-out model.

Is it likely to happen?

Something has to give if governments are going to meet various climate targets. The UK has legislated for a net zero greenhouse gas emission target by 2050 and needs consumers to join the mission. But aviation has been slow to address the problem, only recently investing significantly in research into greener fuels, more efficient engines and even electric airlines. Even while proposing to help inform travellers about the true cost of their journeys, the Department for Transport said its focus remains ‘the development, production and uptake of zero-emission technology across all modes of transport’. But in the case of aviation, scientists say those technologies may arrive too late to alleviate the crisis.

What else can travellers do?

Stay at home: Sporadic reports suggest Britain may retreat from its sunseeking traditions to become a nation of staycationers. Not travelling abroad is an easy way to reduce your footprint and save money.

Fly wise: It’s hard to overstate the impact of flying for those who do venture abroad. In Sweden, ‘flygskam’, or ‘flight shame’, is said to be inspiring a big switch to rail travel. Swedish teenage climate change activist Greta Thunberg, who this year took trains across Europe and even sailed from Plymouth to a climate change summit in New York, is leading the way.

Travel consciously: If you’re going to jet off somewhere, whatever the distance, there are growing options to do so as sustainably as possible, while also navigating the tendency among the industry to ‘greenwash’. An eco-conscious tour operator, like +Impact Travel and Responsible Travel, will take the uncertainty out of booking an ethical trip, sourcing genuinely responsible lodging, guides and destinations. And if flying is a must, offsetting can’t hurt.

Published in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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